“In the Wilderness”; Luke 4:1-13; February 14, 2016, FPC Holt

“In the Wilderness”
Luke 4:1-13
February 14, 2016, First Presbyterian Church of Holt

Listen here

2016 2 14 SLIDE 1 - LostThink of a time in your life when you felt lost. That will look like different things to everyone of you. Perhaps it was being separated from your parent or from your child in the grocery store, that panic of not knowing where they’d gone. Maybe it was shortly after getting your driver’s license, or coming back to a place you hadn’t been in a long time,  and where you thought you were is not where you are. Maybe it was following the loss of a loved one, when all the dependable patterns of your life seemed to disappear, and you weren’t really sure where to go from there. Perhaps it was in a season of mental or physical illness, when your body or mind were betraying how you were used to looking at the world, redefining what it was you could do, how it was you could go on.

When we are feeling lost, our fear, panic, and isolation transform wherever we are into a wilderness, an unknown place where we are laid bare.

2016 2 14 SLIDE 2 - WildernessPastor and professor Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “Wildernesses come in so many shapes and sizes that the only way you can really tell you are in one is to look around for what you normally count on to save your life and come up empty.  No food.  No earthly power.  No special protection–just a Bible-quoting devil and a whole bunch of sand.”

2016 2 14 SLIDE 3 - Jesus WildernessI remember one of the first times I read this passage and I did a bit of a double take when I heard how Jesus got into this wilderness predicament. Did you catch it?

“Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.”

He wasn’t there by some accident or some trick, Jesus was in the wilderness because the spirit led him there. But he is not left alone. In both Matthew and Mark’s account of this Jesus’ wilderness time, scripture says that angels waited on Jesus, and were there for him when he emerged from the wilderness.

2016 2 14 SLIDE 4 - Hand UpSo what does this mean for us? It means that God does not leave us in our wildernesses, but that the Holy Spirit accompanies us, strengthening us with the knowledge and the hope to get us through. Perhaps in those times when we thought we were the most alone, we were indeed surrounded by angels.

2016 2 14 SLIDE 5 - Jenny LawsonI recently read Jenny Lawson’s book, “Furiously Happy.” In it she speaks extensively about her struggles with mental illness and how her vulnerability has enabled her to connect with and help so many.  She writes this to the readers of her blog, “When I came out so many years ago about my depression and anxiety disorder I was afraid you’d all run away screaming. But you didn’t. Instead, thousands of you said 2016 2 14 SLIDE 6 - Me too‘Me too,’ and ‘I thought I was the only one,’ and ‘It’s not just me?’ You gave me the strength to be honest about my flaws and the support to realize that I was more than the broken parts that make up me. And you did something else you might not even realize…

In the years since I started writing about mental illness I’ve received so many letters from people who were affected by this community, but there were special ones I kept in a folder that I named 2016 2 14 SLIDE 7 - Folder of 24“‘The Folder of 24.’ – It was called that because it contained 24 letters from people who were actively planning their suicide, but decided to get help instead. And not because of what I said…they did it because of you. Almost every single one explained that what convinced them that depression was lying to them was the amazing response to my posts. They could look at a single person like me and think it was still a rare illness or something to be ashamed about…but when thousands of strangers shout out into the darkness that they are there too, it makes ripples. And those anonymous strangers saved lives without even knowing it. If you ever left a comment or a kind word you may have been the cause of someone’s mother or daughter or son being alive. Being thankful to be alive.

When I was on tour with my last book I’d sometimes talk about the Folder of 24 and how that folder is the best reason I’ll ever have for writing. And then something strange happened.  After a reading people would lean in close and whisper ‘I was 25.’’’

Jenny Lawson’s wilderness of depression and anxiety was wilderness because of how isolated she felt within it and when she allowed herself to be vulnerable enough to let others into the pain she was experiencing, she felt their “me too”s surrounding her, helping to lessen not only her pain, but also their own. In bringing her story to the light she brought others into the light alongside her.

2016 2 14 SLIDE 9 - EmpathyI believe that this is the work of the Holy Spirit, transforming wilderness into community, vulnerability into hope, through the empathy of others. Being the beloved community together requires us to be a people of vulnerability, honestly allowing others into the fractured part of our lives, but being in community means that’s not the end of it. A gift of vulnerability offered by another requires response, and it is important what that response will be. If our response is one of judgement or discomfort it can widen our wildernesses and increase our isolation. Vulnerability is an invitation to extend our own “me too”s. Not that we should ever pretend to know the complexities of the hurt of another, but that vulnerability should be met with our own vulnerability, extending empathy rather than sympathy, so that we may meet people in their wilderness and journey alongside them.

2016 2 14 SLIDE 10 - God With UsThis empathetic response is part of the very fiber of our Christian story. Our God is a God with us, a God of “me too”s, not keeping at a distance in our wilderness, but walking through the dark valleys with us. When we kept God at a distance through our sin, God sent Jesus to become one of us to truly empathize with the human experience. When he was on earth he didn’t avoid the wildernesses of this world, but entered right into them, extending a hand to lepers, befriending prostitutes, sharing wells with Samaritans, and going toe to toe with the devil itself. He could have rightly claimed his place as a king among kings, but instead chose to be a human among humanity.

2016 2 14 SLIDE 11 - CrucifixionAnd in the ultimate act of vulnerability Jesus met the brokenness and pain of Judas, Pilate, and throngs of the disenchanted with his willing innocence. He met the brokenness and sins of this world with his very life. In the pain of his death our pain is met, matched, and healed.

Through his life Jesus taught us to be a people of “me too”, to meet people in their wilderness, not as one looking from the outside, but from one in the midst. May we be emboldened by this witness to be vulnerable with our lives and empathetic with our love, ever striving to be God’s beloved community. Amen.

“It’s Alive!”; Hebrews 4:12-16; October 11, 2015; FPC Holt

“It’s Alive!”
Hebrews 4:12-16
October 11, 2015, First Presbyterian Church of Holt

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2015 10 11 Slide01When I was in third grade I received my first Bible. This red “Good News Bible,” with my name printed on the inside cover. I remember standing up in the front of the sanctuary of First Presbyterian Church of Maumee, Ohio and being handed this brand new fresh Bible. I was so excited, beaming from ear to ear, proud that my church was entrusting me with such a very important gift: the word of God!

2015 10 11 Slide02And then, after the service I went up to Sunday school, Bible in hand. A friend of mine grabbed mine to check it out and I’ll never forget this moment, she opened it and I heard a distinct ripping noise. I was horrified. I’m not sure if I started crying or not, but I know I thought about it. Here I had this brand new Bible and now it was ripped! It was no longer new. It was no longer special. I was so upset.

Though it is rational to get upset when something you have is ripped, I was upset for the wrong reasons. I wanted my Bible to stay clean and pure, to stay just like I had received it. I thought that this rip meant that I had messed up God’s word! I thought it meant that I was not responsible enough to have such a holy book in my library.

2015 10 11 Slide03I didn’t understand that though one page was ripped ever so slightly, the words were intact. The importance of this book was intact. God’s promises were intact. The troubling thing with this sort of reaction towards a slight marring of God’s word is that it places the emphasis on the physicality of scripture, as if somehow my copy was the only one, and my “ruining” of this book was messing up God’s message. Thankfully, maintaining scripture was not the sole responsibility of my third grade self.

2015 10 11 Slide04For thousands of years scripture was transmitted from person to person by storytelling. God’s truth was whispered in back alleys, told over kitchen tables, 2015 10 11 Slide05 drawn out in the sand, and shouted from street corners. God’s message of love and hope and redemption and grace and joy can no more be contained to this little red book than God can be contained by our human understanding of God. As a third grader, I didn’t understand that.

I begrudgingly opened my now less than perfect Bible and tried to figure out what it had to say to me. And you know what, even though it was not so perfect in physical appearance it spoke to me a message of grace and truth. It told me that I, Bible-ruining as I may be, was a child of God. It told me that God has a call for my life. It told me that God loved the whole world and that I was a part of making sure that the whole world knew that truth. I was now tasked with whispering this word, writing it in the sand, and shouting it from street corners. These messages of less than perfect disciples and inadequate preachers whom God had tasked with the bringing about of the Kingdom of God leapt off the page and into my heart.

2015 10 11 Slide06 The beginning words of the Gospel of John speak to the enduring timelessness of God’s word throughout time and tradition: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.” [1]

The word of God is so much more than the Bible itself, this passage tells us the Word was God. Through the person of Jesus Christ, the living incarnation of God, the holiness of God was lived out in human experience. Through a blameless life and a selfless death Christ lived the Gospel message that love is stronger than hate and life has the final word over death.

The truth of this living word echoes throughout our Biblical texts, breathing life and grace into the written word. When we read this written word we too are welcomed into this eternal story of God’s enduring truth, of the lived reality of grace.

Each and every Bible is a unique sort of book because it is so much more than a work of literature, a book of poetry, or a nice story about the history of people who lived long ago.

Princeton Professor John P. Burgess writes, “The Old and New Testaments offer much more than information about God. They set forth the living Christ and invite us into relationship with God. In this sense, the Bible is the word of God – not because it is correct in every historical or scientific detail, but rather because it witnesses to what God has done and continues to do in Christ.”[2]

2015 10 11 Slide08Psalm 119 gives us instructions on how to take in this amazing story, the story of God and of us. In verses 12-16 it says, “Blessed are you, O Lord; teach me your statutes. With my lips I declare all the ordinances of your mouth. I delight in the way of your decrees as much as in all riches. I will meditate on your precepts, and fix my eyes on your ways. I will delight in your statutes; I will not forget your word.”

To truly allow God’s word to be alive in us and in the world around us, we need to experience it. We can’t mediate on God’s word if we have not read it. We cannot fix our eyes on God’s way unless we learn about God’s way through scripture. But also we cannot call ourselves followers of Christ, if we allow our devotion God’s word to stop at the reading of scripture.

2015 10 11 Slide09We read in Hebrews 4 today, “the word of God is living and active.” We read the words of Jesus in John 14:12, “the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these.” What are we to do with scripture than, if not to let it guide us to “live and move and have our being”[3] in response to God our creator.

Favorite preacher of mine, Barbara Brown Taylor wrote about the danger of preferring time with the written page over enacting God’s lived out word. She writes, “If I am not careful, I can begin to mistake the words on the page for the realities they describe. I can begin to love the dried ink marks on the page more than I love the encounters that gave rise to them. If I am not careful, I can decide that I am really much happier reading my Bible than I am entering into what God is doing in my own time and place, since shutting the book to go outside will involve the very great risk of taking part in stories that are still taking shape.  Neither I nor anyone else knows how these stories will turn out, since at this point they involve more blood than ink. The whole purpose of the Bible, it seems to me, is to convince people to set the written word down in order to become living words in the world for God’s sake.”[4]

2015 10 11 Slide12Being a part of bringing about God’s living and active word in this world is certainly more complex than simply listening or reading scripture, and so it can be hard to know where to start. An overwhelmingly present example in our world today is the care and wellbeing of refugees, particularly in Syria.

Throughout history Jewish and Christian tradition have placed emphasis on hospitality towards refugees, with repeated reminder that God’s people have so often been the stranger. Exodus 23:9 says, “Don’t take advantage of a stranger. You know what it’s like to be a stranger; you were strangers in Egypt.” In Leviticus 19:34 we read, “When a foreigner lives with you in your land, don’t take advantage of him. Treat the foreigner the same as a native. Love him like one of your own. Remember that you were once foreigners in Egypt.” In total, there are 36 biblical warnings against the mistreatment of strangers; 36 Biblical warnings.

And yet we sit overwhelmed both by the present situation of international distress and the overwhelming Biblical mandate to do something about. What are we to do? How can we enact God’s word in this story still taking shape?

Stated clerk of our denomination, Grayde Parsons wrote this week,  “Presbyterians profess a faith in Christ, whose parents were forced to flee with him to Egypt when he was an infant to save him from King Herod. Knowing our Lord was once a refugee, faithful Presbyterians have been writing church policy urging the welcome of refugees and demanding higher annual admissions into the United States since the refugee crisis of World War II. … Presbyterians through decades of policy have demanded humane treatment of people of all nationalities and faiths who find themselves within our borders. We have challenged our government when it neglects to acknowledge the refugee status of those fleeing persecution. We have pushed for due process at the border and we continue to petition for immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship for undocumented persons.”[5]

Through supporting these efforts of our denomination, and joining our voices with those speaking for justice we enable God’s word to speak hope to those in need of hope.

2015 10 11 Slide15In this very church and community there are many opportunities for you to extend God’s love and welcome to those who are seeking home and sanctuary through relationship with Global Family Fellowship. I’m sure Lazara, Gary, and Trudy would be delighted to find ways to connect you with those in need of the very welcome and connection that the Bible urges us to provide.

When we open ourselves to proclaiming God’s word in our actions, relationships, and livelihoods, we can share in the confidence of the prophet Isaiah who said, “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” May we indeed accomplish God’s purpose. May God’s word come to life in us and through us, as we seek to speak and live God’s word into being. Amen.

[1] John 1:1-4

[2] John P. Burgess, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 4

[3] Acts 17:28

[4] Barbara Brown Taylor, Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith

[5] http://www.pcusa.org/news/2015/10/2/clerk-issues-letter-trump-refugees-immigrants/

“Dwell”; Psalm 84:1-12; August 23, 2015, FPC Holt

“Dwell”
Psalm 84:1-12
August 23, 2015, First Presbyterian Church of Holt

Listen to the sermon here

2015 8 23 Slide01Have you ever received a postcard like this? One that has “Wish You Were Here” written across the front? Being that it’s summertime I know that many of you have had the chance to go on vacation, to experience a change of view, something beyond what you see in your every day life. Perhaps on your trip you sent a post card like this one. Or perhaps you posted a “wish you were here,” type of status or picture on some variety of social media.

When we experience something extraordinary in our lives, something that brings us peace, clarity, or beauty, we often feel compelled to bring others into the experience, to try to make them understand a bit of what we’ve been through and why it matters.

2015 8 23 Slide02 If you talk to anyone right after a life-changing mission trip, perhaps in Muko, Uganda or the Yucatan, and ask them what it was like, often the first answer is something along the lines of: you’ve just got to experience it for yourself. There’s something that can’t quite be put into words, when we experience God’s tremendous presence for ourselves, particularly in ways that are new to us.

With this same indefinable joy, we hear the voice of the Psalmist: “How lovely is your dwelling place…” The words of this Psalm invite us into God’s presence, draws us into an experience of God that is beyond anything we could attempt to capture in a snapshot or write down on a postcard.

Many scholars agree that these verses were originally written to speak of a pilgrim’s journey towards the temple in Jerusalem for a religious festival. You can hear the excitement mounting throughout these verses, “My soul longs, indeed it faints for the courts of the Lord; my heart and my flesh sing for joy to the living God!”

2015 8 23 Slide04The Psalm as a whole seems penned as a “wish you were here,” to all those who have not yet encountered the presence of God. The scripture serves as directions for the physical journey towards Jerusalem: through Baca, taking the highways to Zion. For thousands of years, continuing to present day, Jewish pilgrims have made their way to this holy city, drawing close to the temple that was built per God’s own instruction. Though two temples have come and gone in the place, the foundation remains, and serves as a touchstone to that ancient faith community.

There’s something tangibly felt in a place where people have worshiped for a long period of time, the presence of God breathing through so many millions of prayers. Throughout much of the Old Testament the presence of God was seen as something that could be contained, walls surrounding the “Holy of Holies” in tents made for worship, or in the temple, where God’s presence dwelled.

But this Psalm also lays the framework for welcoming God’s presence into your own life, allowing God to dwell fully within you, your heart ever pointing towards God’s goodness, an understanding that is more fully fleshed out in the New Testament.

In 1 Corinthians 3:16-17 we read Paul’s exhortation, “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.”

After God’s incarnation in Jesus, the Holy Spirit comes among the people at Pentecost and rests within them.

In Ephesians 3:16-19, the apostle Paul expresses the desire for us to fully comprehend God’s desire to dwell within us. He writes, “I pray that, according to the riches of [God’s] glory…you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through [God’s] Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.”

Being “filled with the fullness of God” seems like an abstract concept. We want a to-do list, a distinct map, a fail-proof tutorial showing us how we too can encounter God, how we can have God dwell in our hearts.

2015 8 23 Slide08I’m reminded of the Lego Movie, where the main character Emmett takes a tremendous amount of comfort in having “instructions” for everything, not only in creating buildings but also in living his life. In the beginning of the movie we see him pick up instructions on how to “fit in, have everybody like you, and always be happy,” involving tasks like “breathe.” It even says at the bottom of these instructions, “Failure to follow instructions may result in a sad and unfulfilling life.”

Encountering God’s presence is abstract, because we worship a God who is beyond containment, who cannot be captured in words or contained in boundaries.

2015 8 23 Slide09In her book “An Altar in the World,” Barbara Brown Taylor speaks of a great many places and a great many ways we may encounter God. She writes, “I worry about what happens when we build a house for God… Do we build a house so that we can choose when to go see God? Do we build God a house in lieu of having God stay at ours? Plus what happens to the rest of the world when we build four walls – even four gorgeous walls – cap them with a steepled roof, and designate that the House of God? What happens to the riverbanks, the mountaintops, the deserts and the trees? What happens to be people who never show up in our houses of God?”

2015 8 23 Slide10We do indeed experience God’s presence in the sacred spaces we’ve designated as such, but if we do not open our eyes and our hearts to God’s presence beyond our four walls we are not opening ourselves to God’s presence dwelling within us, and within those we encounter. To allow God’s fullness to dwell within us we must first experience God and then live a life that points to that presence.

Some of you encounter and share God’s presence through mission work around the world, some by saying nighttime prayers with your children, some by holding the hand of your spouse and affirming God’s covenant between you, some through drawing close to those who are seeking healing and breathing a word of hope whether in this life or life eternal.

Allowing God to dwell within you does not mean you will live without sin or without mistake, because we are human after all, but it does mean that you will strive to keep the bigger picture of God’s will in mind, that you will seek to have your life arc towards worship of God in and through all things.

2015 8 23 Slide11In Hebrew, which the Psalmist used to write our scripture today, the word we know as “dwell,” is “shakhen.” While in English “dwell” can mean resting for a short time, in the Hebrew and in the Greek, “kat-oy-keh´-o,” this word does not carry our transitory understanding. It means to settle down, permanently, to be established.

God desires to remain fully and permanently in our lives, inhabiting all of us. God May we open ourselves fully to God’s presence in our worship and in our world, so God may dwell within us. Amen.

“Having a B-Attitude,” Matthew 5:1-12; March 2, 2014, FPC Jesup

“Having a B-Attitude”
Matthew 5:1-12
March 2, 2014, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide01My plan for today was to preach about having an attitude acknowledging our blessedness, an assignment that has proved to be both challenging and convicting. With this sermon still uncompleted yesterday afternoon, sitting snowed into my house stewing in frustration at this seemingly endless winter, I did not have exactly what you could call an attitude of blessedness. In fact, I was angry. Last night I had tickets to an event in Cedar Rapids that I had bought David as a Christmas present, thinking hopefully by March we wouldn’t have a problem getting around. And then it snowed, and snowed some more, and that plan just did not work. I was stuck at home.

SLIDE 2 - A Tree Full of AngelsSometimes when I get really frustrated I need to get out of my own mind for a bit and read the words of much calmer authors. I turned to a beautiful book, “A Tree Full of Angels,” by Macrina Wiederkehr and read these words, so very fitting to what I needed to hear:

She writes, “I always say that winter is my fourth favorite season. It is not first, to be sure, yet there is something in it that I favor. I need the scourging that it brings. I need its toughness and endurance. I need its hope. I love the way winter stands there saying, ‘I dare you not to notice my beauty.’ Slide03What can I say to a winter tree when I am able to see the shape of its soul because it has finally let go of its protective leaves? What do you say to an empty tree? Standing before an empty tree is like seeing it for the first time… “

SLIDE 4 - Sorrow She continues“…Are our lives so very different when we’re empty? When we’ve turned loose our protective coverings, is our beauty any less? In the seasons of life, suffering is my fourth favorite season. I could not place it first, yet like winter, there is something in it that has my favor. It is not easy to be praying about suffering while the sun is rising, but I try not to turn away from what God asks me to gaze upon. My sunrise is someone else’s sunset. My cry of joy stands beside someone else’s cry of sorrow. They are two seasons of the same life.”

Slide05When we only look at the world solely through our experience, through our own season it is quite possible to only see the winter, or only see our own season of sorrow or frustration. And as much as I did not want to admit it yesterday, that snow is gorgeous. The way it sparkles, the way it covers all the grit and dirt that has a way of mixing in. There’s a gentle beauty to ice frosted trees.

Slide06It’s a dangerous beauty, of course. We only need to drive down 20 to see the account of how many drivers’ lives this winter has already taken. It’s frightening to fishtail, to spin out, to try and find the edge of the road by the grooves of the tires of those who have come before you, or by aiming to drive parallel to the headlights coming at you. If you can avoid traveling at all in this weather I’d highly encourage safety over any other obligation.

We live in the promise that this winter will not last forever, even if it’s hard to believe it on a snowy March 2nd in Jesup, IA.Slide07I remember when I first learned that Australia was having summer when we were having winter. It blew my mind a bit. Also, I decided I wanted to perpetually chase Fall since it was my favorite season and also when my birthday happens. I didn’t quite get that two Falls did not mean two birthdays. But still, it made me think of the world in a whole different way.

SLIDE 8 - Upside Down ChurchI’ve had similar revelations while reading the Bible. Sometimes things just seem so completely upside down. Jesus tells us that in God’s kingdom, many of the value systems of this world will be reversed.

Favorite author of mine, Barbara Brown Taylor describes this in an interesting way—God’s Ferris wheel:

Slide09“Jesus makes the same promise to all his listeners: that the way things are is not the way they will always be. The Ferris wheel will go around, so that those who are swaying at the top, with the wind in their hair and all the worlds’ lights at their feet, will have their turn at the bottom, while those who are down there right now, where all they can see are candy wrappers in the sawdust, will have their chance to touch the stars. It is not advice at all. It is not even judgment. It is simply the truth about the way things work, pronounced by someone who loves everyone on that wheel.”

I love this image, each of us having a chance to touch the stars. Each of us simply being on our own part in the journey, our own journey around the sun. I also like that Barbara Brown Taylor speaks of how this movement around the Ferris wheel is not one of judgment, rather that God our creator loves every one of us and desires goodness for all of us.

Lutheran preacher, Brian Rossbert spoke these words about the beatitudes:

“Instead of hearing Jesus’ blessings from atop a mountain as an encouragement to become meeker or poorer in spirit or to have more mourning in our lives, perhaps what those blessings were about, perhaps what Jesus was speaking about on the mountain was an invitation, an invitation to prayer and an invitation to take notice of where God’s blessedness had already arrived.”[1]

Slide11Acknowledging our blessedness is not about placing ourselves into a new context or into a new season, it is about recognizing the blessedness that already surrounds us. As much as being snowed in yesterday frustrated me, I can acknowledge even in the same scene, the same season that I am so blessed to have a house with a working furnace, food to eat, and Bailey to keep me company. I don’t need to be more meek or poorer in spirit, but Jesus reassures me even if I were, and even when I am, I am blessed. This blessedness may look different in seasons of meekness and spiritual poverty, but it is still there.

Macrina Wiederkehr in “A Tree Full of Angels,” continues saying, “there is something about suffering that is ennobling. I’ve seen it recreate people. I’ve seen the mystery of suffering unfold people in a way that is sacramental, giving them the face of Christ. I have watched people suffer and wondered…what it is that gifts people with the courage to suffer so well. What is it that makes some people able to embrace suffering in such a way that they are lifted up rather than crushed?…Why is it that some of us learn how to embrace suffering in a way that makes us beautiful? And why is it that some of us allow it to embitter us?”

Slide13Well known author, Madeleine L’Engle wrote a book called “The Irrational Season,” about the season of Lent, which we will be entering this week on Ash Wednesday. In it she writes, “I am too eager for spring… fields need their blanket of snow to prepare the ground for growing. In my heart I am too eager for Easter. But, like the winter fields, my heart needs the snows of Lent….Each one of the beatitudes begins with Blessed, and translated from the Greek blessed means happy….Sometimes I think we have forgotten how to be truly happy, we are so conditioned to look for instant gratification. Thus we confuse happiness with transitory pleasures, with self-indulgence.”

As each of us passes through our own seasons of life may we be ennobled to see the blessing God has for us and live into that hope. Amen.

Festival of Homiletics Tweets

I just returned from a wonderful week in Nashville for the Festival of Homiletics. It was such an incredible time I’m having trouble summarizing all of it, so I have decided to share some of the highlights from my tweets from the week. Please feel free to read more of them on my twitter page.

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“How Beautiful are the Feet,” Lenten Practices: Foot Washing; Isaiah 52:7 and John 12:1-8; March 17, 2013; FPC Jesup

“How Beautiful are the Feet,” Lenten Practices: Foot Washing
Isaiah 52:7 and John 12:1-8
March 17, 2013
First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide04Throughout our Lenten series we have been studying many different practices, iconography, fasting, prayers of petition, walking a labyrinth, and prayers of confession. Though many of these practices have the concerns of others in mind, most of those practices can be done just fine alone. Today’s practice however, requires interacting with others in a way that might not be the most comfortable thing.

Slide02The practice is “foot washing.” Within the context of our worship service today we will translate this to hand washing. But for now I’d like to stay with the image of foot washing.

Have you ever watched the TV show, “Dirty Jobs?” In this show the host, Mike Rowe takes on some of the dirtiest jobs that there are out there. And boy does he get dirty. From trash, to sewage, to tar, to animal carcasses, Mike Rowe has dealt with all of these things, and given the outside world an often-nauseating look into each of these worlds.  I know there are some of you in this congregation that have experienced your own dirty jobs, working with manure or animals or other such things in ways that would make your suburban-raised pastor faint.Slide03

What I’m trying to get at here is that one of the dirtiest jobs in Jesus’ time was that of a foot washer. In Jesus’s time traveling primarily involved walking. There was no plumbing of any kind, there was no pavement, no real regard for sanitation. People’s feet were very, very, very, dirty.

Slide04How strange is it then that when Jesus comes to Bethany, Mary places herself at Jesus’ feet, anointing them with perfume, and drying them with her hair. Her hair! The thought of it grosses me out. Her concern was clearly not for her own vanity, but for worship of Jesus Christ.

SLIDE 5 - Jesus FeetIn the dirt and in the grim of those road weary feet of Jesus there was also beauty. These feet weren’t the feet of someone who kept at a distance. They were the feet of someone who walked among the people. Jesus was both God and human, and in his walking he was very human. If you have the power of heaven and earth, why would you choose to limit yourself to being constrained within a body? And if you must be in a body, is it really necessary to do all of that walking? Couldn’t he fly or in the very least, ride a donkey?

My favorite author, Barbara Brown Taylor writes about this, “The four gospels are peppered with accounts of [Jesus] walking into the countryside, walking by the Sea of Galilee, walking in the Temple, and even walking on water…This gave him time to see things, like the milky eyes of the beggar sitting by the side of the road, or the round black eyes of sparrows sitting in their cages at the market. If he had been moving more quickly – even to reach more people – these things might have become a blur to him. Because he was moving slowly, they came into focus for him, just as he came into focus for them.”

SLIDE 8 - Pedestrian CrossPart of Jesus’ ministry was being very present, very human, and in every definition of the word, “pedestrian.”

In our Old Testament reading, Isaiah 52:7 we heard

“How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns.’”

Slide10How beautiful than were the feet of Jesus, the announcer of peace, the embodiment of good news, and the provider of salvation?

This passage in Isaiah exults the feet of ministry. Feet of peace, good news, and salvation are much more than the dirt that may cover them. Their beauty stems from the goodness of the person attached to them, but it also stems from their own work: their ministry of walking on the earth, of bearing goodness as they travel. This ministry will make them dirty, at times will cover them with callouses, blisters, heel spurs, but these feet are beautiful because they are feet that are in motion.

Slide11This is my family with my Great Grandmother, Granny Ruth, who lived to be 101. She used to say “I’d rather wear out than rust out.”

Slide12This is the call also of the disciple. We are not meant to sit around with clean feet. We are meant to be in motion. We are meant to keep our eyes open, our hearts open to those who might cross our paths. We are meant to get our own feet dirty,SLIDE 13 - Mary or in the case of Mary, our own hair. Mary’s act of love for Jesus required a disregard for her own well being both hygienically and financially.

In response to today being St. Patrick’s day, a seminary friend of mine, Rachel Jenkins wrote this lectionary themed limerick: “There once was a woman named Mary. /Though Jesus’s feet were quite hairy, /she opened the jar /and poured out the nard /and foreshadowed that he would be buried?”

Her alternative last line is: “and everyone spit out their sherry.”

SLIDE 14 - MaryThey were indeed shocked and probably would’ve spit out their sherry if they were drinking it at the time. This perfume that Mary was to be used for burials. Though Jesus was frequently pointing to the short life before him, only Mary seemed to understand that perfume for burial was exactly what this situation called for. Jesus’ ministry was not leading to election to a political post or to celebrity status; it was leading to the crucifixion, it was leading to death.

Slide16Mary immediately receives criticism for the wastefulness of her actions.  As if on an episode of “The Price is Right,” Judas readily identifies the 300 denarii that went into purchasing that perfume. He was upset with how much money she “wasted.” As a bit of an aside, the author of this gospel tells us “He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.” (John 12:6) Judas desire was not for the money to serve someone else, but rather that it might serve him. He was looking not for the humility of service, but for personal promotion.

While Jesus was alive, the disciples never seemed to really understand what Jesus was calling them to do and be in their world.

Luke 9:46-48 tells us:

“An argument arose among [the disciples] as to which one of them was the greatest. But Jesus, aware of their inner thoughts, took a little child and put it by his side, and said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes this child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me; for the least among all of you is the greatest.’”

Jesus was always doing things like that, making flipping things on their heads and reordering their expectations.

In Matthew 20:26-28 Jesus corrects the disciples saying:

“Whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

And in the last supper Jesus had with his disciples, he demonstrates this service to his disciples in one of the most unexpected of ways. He takes on the “dirty job” of washing their feet:

“[Jesus] got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” Jesus said to him, “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you.”For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, “Not all of you are clean.”

After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord — and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.” (John 13:4-17)

Richard J. Foster writes in his book, “A Celebration of Discipline”: “As the cross is the sign of submission, so the towel is the sign of service…. The spiritual authority of Jesus is an authority not found in a position or title, but in a towel.” [1]

Contemporary society is familiar Jesus’ call in Matthew 16:24 to deny ourselves, taken up the cross and follow Jesus. We are much less familiar with the call to take up a towel and follow Christ.

SLIDE 23 - Towel and SandalsTaking up the towel involves kneeling at feet. Taking up the towel involves making ourselves dirty in the process. Taking up the towel in the way that Jesus demonstrates involves washing the world clean. Not just the parts that need some light dusting, but the parts that need a deep scrubbing. Jesus washes the feet of Judas. All throughout the story of this last supper Jesus points to his knowledge of Judas’ imminent betrayal, but still he kneels before him and serves him. This is the sort of servant-hood to which Jesus is calling us.

Foster writes about this: “We must see the difference between choosing to serve and choosing to be a servant. When we choose to serve, we are still in charge. We decide whom we will serve and when we will serve. And if we are in charge, we will worry a great deal about anyone stepping on us, that is, taking charge over us. But when we choose to be a servant, we give up the right to be in charge. There is great freedom in this. If we voluntarily choose to be taken advantage of, then we cannot be manipulated. When we choose to be a servant, we surrender the right to decide who and when we will serve. We become available and vulnerable.” [2]Slide25

When we choose servant-hood out of love of God and desire for the care for the world that God loves, we are taking up that towel of service. When we go out to share God’s love, our feet become beautiful. May we seek to share God’s love with all we meet in both word and action. Amen.


[1] Richard J. Foster, Celebration of Discipline: the Path to Spiritual Growth, 20th anniversary ed. (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1998), 126, 128.

[2] Richard J. Foster, Celebration of Discipline: the Path to Spiritual Growth, 20th anniversary ed. (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1998), 132.

“Thanksgiving for the Exceptional and the Everyday;” Psalm 95:1-6 and 1 Timothy 4:4-5; November 11, 2012, FPC Jesup

“Thanksgiving for the Exceptional and the Everyday”
Psalm 95:1-6 and 1 Timothy 4:4-5
November 11, 2012
First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

A few days ago I was walking my dog Bailey outside late at night. With the absence of traffic, I could hear the faint humming of the grain silo and the scratching of tree branches in the wind. The air felt electric. Perhaps it was my imagination but Bailey seemed to sense it too. He sniffed at the air, looking around expectantly. I looked up and the stars were brighter than what I could experience back in my hometown in Ohio, and then all of a sudden a shooting star blazed across the sky. I looked around, had anyone else seen it? Had anyone else witnessed this quick and bright moment of beauty?[1] Standing there in the midst of God’s amazing creation, I remember thinking, “surely God is present.”

In Genesis 28 we are given the story of Jacob having such a moment with God. Jacob was traveling in the wilderness and stopped to rest, using a rock as a pillow.That night he had a dream where God came to him and said,

“I am the LORD, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, “Surely the LORD is in this place—and I did not know it!”Jacob then takes his stone pillow and sets it up as a pillar, pours oil on it and names it Bethel, House of God. In Hebrew Beth means house and El is short for “Elohim,” a name of God.

The space where this dream happened was not particularly exceptional. It was merely a patch of land with a stone. By any outside observation Jacob’s remarkable evening would’ve seemed like a rather mundane occurrence. A man, falls asleep outside with his head on a rock, and then wakes up and pours oil on it and keeps on walking. All in all, it was not a very remarkable experience. It became remarkable through God’s presence, and Jacob’s acknowledgement of that presence. God did not need Jacob’s monument to be present in that space. God was already there. But by drawing attention to that space, Jacob left a reminder of God’s presence and called it the “house of God.”

My favorite author, Barbara Brown Taylor explains her own encounter with God’s presence in her book “An Altar in the World.” After explaining a particularly beautiful scene during a visit to Hawaii she writes, “I knew the name of the place: Bethel, House of God…I wondered how I had forgotten that the whole world is the House of God. Who had persuaded me that God preferred four walls and a roof to wide-open spaces? When had I made the subtle switch myself, becoming convinced that church bodies and buildings were the safest and most reliable places to encounter the living God?” She continues, saying:

“Do we build God a house so that we can choose when to go and see God? Do we build God a house in lieu of having God stay at ours? Plus, what happens to the rest of the world when we build four walls – even four gorgeous walls – cap them with a steepled roof, and designate that the House of God? What happens to the riverbanks, the mountaintops, the deserts, and the trees? What happens to the people who never show up in our houses of God? The people of God are not the only creatures capable of praising God, after all, There are also wolves and seals. There are also wild geese and humpback whales. According to the Bible, even trees can clap their hands.”[2]

Barbara Brown Taylor’s redefinition of the House of God as the whole world opens up the worship of God to all parts of creation and speaks to God’s inability to be contained in a single building or community. Our uncontainable God is spoken of in this way in scripture, especially in the Old Testament. Before God came to earth in Jesus Christ, God was perpetually being described as One who is unknowable, unnameable, and far beyond the bounds of human convention. This view of God is described in the poetic devices of the Hebrew texts.

Our Psalm today speaks in merisms. Merisms are phrases that list two extremes with the implied, “and everything in between.” Merisms are not foreign to our culture, we still use phrases like, “searched high and low,” “through thick and thin,” and “in sickness and in health.” Merisms are used quite a bit in the Bible, particularly in the poetry of the Hebrew Bible. I’m going to read through a few of them and just to help all of us to be aware of what is really being said, I’d like you to say with me, “and everything in between” after each one.

Our passage today says, “In his hand are the depths of the earth; the heights of the mountains are his also.” And say it with me, “and everything in between”Later in the passage it says, “The sea is his, for he made it, and the dry land, which his hands have formed.” And… “and everything in between.” Psalm 139:2 says, “You know when I sit down and when I get up.” And… “and everything in between.” Psalm 113:3 says, “From the rising of the sun to its setting the name of the LORD is to be praised.” And… “and everything in between.” I particularly enjoy this verse because the rising and setting of the sun can be interpreted both in terms of geography and in terms of time. God is to be praised in all places at all times.

God is present in shooting stars, rocky wilderness, Hawaiian vistas, and everything in between. God is present in this building, in the other churches of Jesup, in my home church in Ohio, in the temples of Jerusalem, the cathedrals of Rome, and everything in between.  God is there when we take notice, and there when we don’t. God is there in the exceptional circumstances of our lives and there in the mundane. God is in the everything in between. Our experiences are made holy by God’s presence. And God’s presence is made known to us when we praise God with thanksgiving.

This is what we acknowledge in our sacraments of baptism and communion. Sacraments are a visible sign of the invisible actions of the Holy Spirit in our midst. Sacraments change our experience, making sacred meaning out of secular elements.

Just as with the seemingly everyday actions of Jacob in the wilderness, if an outside observer was watching us today without an explanation of what was going on, they would think that later on in the service as we share bread and grape juice that we are simply having a snack together. It might seem a bit odd, everyone lining up and ripping off bread. But while we outwardly receive bread and juice, “by the work of the Holy Spirit [we] also inwardly receive the flesh and blood of the Lord, and are thereby nourished unto life eternal.”[3]

This is what Jesus did too. He was born in an ordinary stable into an ordinary body. He was beyond exceptional, but also lived an everyday sort of life. He is immortal and beyond time, yet He also lived, breathed, dreamed, cried, and died, all in a very real way. He was the shooting star surrounded by the dark night.

John 1:1-5 tells us:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

Jesus was in the beginning, He will be with us in the end. And in everything in between.

With gratitude towards God’s presence in all of creation and all of our experience, I’d like to close today with a poem by e.e. cummings:

thank You God for most this amazing
day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday; this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings: and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)

how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any—lifted from the no
of all nothing—human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?

(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)

May the ears of your ears and eyes of your eyes be open to God’s presence in every in between of your life. Amen.


[1] I discovered later that this was the North Taurid Meteor Shower.

[2] Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World: a Geography of Faith (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2009), 9.

[3] Second Helvetic Confession 5.196

“As God Sees,” 1 Samuel 16:6-13, 2 Corinthians 5:11-17; June 17, 2012; First Congregational Church of Williamstown, MA

“As God Sees”
1 Samuel 16:6-13, 2 Corinthians 5:11-17
June 17, 2012, First Congregational Church of Williamstown

by Salvador Dali

Time for Children

Who can tell me what you see in this picture? [Old couple, vase, people playing instruments] What else? Did you see the picture differently when other kids suggested something different? How about in your life…are there people that seem different after you know what someone else thinks about them? In our scripture today we were told that God looks to the heart of a person rather than to their appearance. This week as you talk to your family and friends I’d like you to think about how you can look to someone’s heart, the way that they show love and care for other people and think about people differently because of it.

“As God Sees”

Who should lead? This is the question of our passage in Samuel and quite frequently the question in our day-to-day lives. Millions of dollars are spent on ad campaigns telling us who would be the right candidate for any given office: mayor, senate, congress, president. We are told why they would be the right person for the position and why their opponent would be the wrong person. Anyone who has turned on a television in the past year has undoubtedly seen many of these ads, particularly for the presidential race. Though there are discussions based on experience, and platforms, there is also inevitably discussion of who “looks more presidential.”

Some argue that John F. Kennedy’s election in 1960 was due in part to his ability to look better than Nixon in the first-ever televised presidential election debates. In fact many who had listened to the debates on radio said that Nixon was the better debater, but those who watched on television thought Kennedy was more successful in the debate. As Kennedy was the one elected, it’s hard not to think that his presidential appearance was a factor.

As in Samuel’s day, we have expectations of who will lead us. We feel like we know what they should look like, what sort of background and qualifications they should have. In our Old Testament passage today we read that Samuel initially goes along with these expectations, looking to Jesse’s oldest son, Eliab and thinking, “Surely the Lord’s anointed is now before the Lord.” But God requires greater discernment, saying to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the LORD does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.”

Samuel then passes over the seven older sons of Jesse and asks Jesse, “Are all your sons here?” Jesse tells him that the youngest one is keeping the sheep. Samuel says, “Send and bring him; for we will not sit down until he comes here.”

The anticipation built in this passage likely carries a different meaning for a reader of Paul’s time, because they know two things:

First, someone out keeping the sheep could be quite far off, taking perhaps a few hours to be reached and brought to the place where Samuel and the rest of Jesse’s sons were gathered for a sacrifice. I can also imagine the frustration of the other brothers in first being passed over and then being made to wait for their youngest brother, who was not important enough to even be present at the sacrifice. Though the text says nothing of the brother’s objections, I can’t help but compare this image to that of Cinderella’s step sisters trying to dissuade the prince from searching for their step sister turned maid when he came searching with that glass slipper.

Secondly, in Jewish tradition seven is a number of wholeness. Jesse had seven sons that Samuel had examined. Surely the one God had chosen would be among the seven, and if not, does that mean that who ever is to come is more than whole?

When the youngest son, David arrives, the Lord speaks to Samuel saying, “Rise and anoint him; for this is the one.”

This is the one. I don’t know about you, but I envy the clarity of this declaration that the Lord gives to Samuel.

Though I do defer to God’s will in prayer, God’s desires for my life are rarely as clear as a direct “choose this, not that.” Still, this passage contains an important message that is applicable in our lives: we are told that the Lord focuses on the heart, rather than the outward appearance.

In the Hebrew, this word leevahv that is translated most often in English as “heart,” means something different from how we know it today. Leevahv can also be translated as, “the mind,” “inner soul,” or “determinations of will.” To look to one’s heart is to truly examine a person’s being, intentions, and desires. So what was it about David’s leevahv that made him so desirable as a leader?

Tony Cartledge, an Old Testament commentary author tries to answer this question. He wrote:

“Consider the significance of David’s openness—his spirit of adventure, his delight in trying new things, his willingness to let God work through him. David’s heart was not closed because his mind was not made up and he made no claim to having everything figured out. The impression we get is that David’s heart was open to the future, open to new possibilities, open to mystery, and therefore open to the spirit of God. As David remained opened to the spirit’s presence and leadership in his life, God’s spirit remained with him from that day forward. As a result, God accomplished great things through David.”[1]

Notice that David did not suddenly become older, or more scholarly, or wealthy; he was still a young, naïve shepherd boy. But God saw through the unassuming exterior and sociological context into the midst of who David was, and deemed his will enough to serve God as the anointed leader to supersede the now disgraced Saul. If we read ahead in scripture we know that David indeed has his own failings, but he was still called and anointed for God’s service. And though he was human and therefore fallible, he was still used for God’s purposes. God’s will was still enacted through David.

My sister, Amy, teaches fifth grade language arts. In order to help her students get in the right mindset for revising their papers, she has students put on “Re-vision” glasses. These are made from 3D movie glasses with the lenses popped out. She teaches that when you revise something you have written you are supposed to look at the paper with new eyes, as “revise” means literally to look at again. This is what God asks us to do, to look again, to “revise” our perceptions of one another, looking not at the external markers of how someone has been cast in this world, but rather to their heart, to their intentions, into the midst of the will of that person.

Our New Testament passage today offers us a new lens through which we may see to the heart of one another, through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Let us listen to God’s Word together as we are reminded of our New Testament passage today from 2 Corinthians chapter 5, verses 11 through 17:

Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we try to persuade others; but we ourselves are well known to God, and I hope that we are also well known to your consciences. We are not commending ourselves to you again, but giving you an opportunity to boast about us, so that you may be able to answer those who boast in outward appearance and not in the heart. For if we are beside ourselves, it is for God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you. For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them. From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!

This passage invites us, in light of Christ’s death and resurrection, to look not to what we profess about ourselves, but to what God professes about us as a part of a larger new creation. Through the example of Christ’s life, we are shown what it means to love, what it means to show care for our neighbor, and we are given a glimpse of the limitless grace of God. This call to regard one another through looking to the heart is a call for us to glimpse Christ’s transformative powers at work in one another.

I heard this story once; perhaps you may have heard it too, about a monastery. As the monks were getting older and passing away, no new monks were coming into the community and eventually there were only five monks left in their order. A few miles from the monastery lived a hermit who many thought was a prophet. As the men of the monastery discussed the bleak state of their order, they decided to visit the hermit to see if he would have some advice. The five monks went to the hermit and explained their situation and he said that he didn’t know how the monastery could be saved. He said the only thing he could tell them is that one of them was an apostle of God. They were confused by this and wondered what it could mean. They were doubtful that one of them could be an apostle, and each wondered if it were true, who could it be? As they thought about this things began to change in their community. Because they weren’t sure who was apostle among them, they began to treat one another with a new kind of grace and respect, on the off chance that one of them might actually be an apostle of God. And on the off, off chance that each monk himself might be the apostle spoken of by the hermit, each monk began to treat himself with extraordinary respect. As others from the outside visited the community, they noticed the care that the monks showed one another and some decided that they too wanted to be a part of that community. Within a few years the monastery had once again become a thriving order of respect and grace.

What would your life look like if you regarded the people you faced day to day in light of God’s grace? How would that change the person in front of you in line at the post office or grocery store? How would that change your family? How would that change this congregation?

This phenomenon of seeking God’s divinity revealed through the other is what Barbara Brown Taylor would call reverence. In her book, An Altar in the World, she writes,

“reverence is the recognition of something greater than the self–something that is beyond human creation or control, that transcends full human understanding…reverence stands in awe of something–something that dwarfs the self, that allows human beings to sense the full extent of our limits–so that we can begin to see one another more reverently as well.”

This sort of reverence is what God desires when we look at one another, to look not at outside indicators of affiliation, class, or profitability, but to look to the heart. My seminary’s beloved Hebrew professor, Carson Brisson was known for a blessing that he pronounced at the end of class. It goes something like this:

We should offer each other all that we have to offer, but if we base our care on what we have to offer there is no future. We should strive not to fail each other, but we do fail each other, so if we base what we call love on the fact that we haven’t failed each other yet, we don’t have a future. There are communities that present compelling intellectual and heartbreaking emotional evidence that the claims we find ourselves belonging to are falsehood. Those communities must be heard. Love must first listen, it doesn’t have to agree, but it has to listen. However, nevertheless having listened, we do find ourselves included in, drawn to, lifted by the claim that there is a love in God’s own heart that has been given to us and that even in the failures and confusions of our own lives corporate and person, this love never fails and this love never waits for a cause. Therefore, beloved, may joy and nothing less find you on the way. May you be blessed, oh may you be a blessing and may light guide you and countless others, whose invitations we may not even been aware of were sent, all the way home.[2]

This blessing speaks of a depth and breadth of love that God calls us to grant to one another. A love based not on a person’s worldly worth or perfect record, but on the beauty of lives and hearts transformed by God’s redemptive power. It is my prayer today that we all may seek to re-vision this world and each other in light of God’s great grace. Amen.

[1] p 204 Smith Hewly’s Bible Commentary

[2] Blessing by Professor Carson Brisson.

“The Practice of Walking on Earth,” by Barbara Brown Taylor

The Practice of Walking on Earth by Barbara Brown Taylor[1]

Not everyone is able to walk, but most people can, which makes walking one of the most easily available spiritual practices of all. All it takes is the decision to walk with some awareness, both of who you are and what you are doing. Where you are going is not as important, however counterintuitive that may seem. To detach the walking from the destination is in fact one of the best ways to recognize the altars you are passing right by all the time. Most of us spend so much time thinking about where we have been or where we are supposed to be going that we have a hard time recognizing where we actually are. When someone asks us where we want to be in our lives, the last thing that occurs to us is to look down at our feet and say, ‘Here, I guess, since this is where I am.’…The beauty of physical practices like this one is that you do not have to know what you are doing in order to begin. You just begin, and the doing teaches you what you need to know.

Thich Nhat Hanh is a Vietnamese Buddhist monk… teaches many forms or attentiveness, including walking meditation. To watch a Buddhist monk practice walking mediation is like watching a lunar eclipse. First the bare heel extends over the earth, coming down so slowly that not even a dry leaf is displaced. Then the arch begins its long descent, laying itself down like a cat. Finally the toes arrive, beginning with the small one and ending with the big. Imperceptibly, the arrival turns into a departure as one heel rises and the other comes down. Up above, the monk shows no signs of having made any of this happen. His face is as still as the moon. This is no circus performer on a high wire. This is a man walking on the earth. The only thing that sets him apart from any other walker is his full devotion to what he is doing. He chops carrots the same way. He hauls water the same way. Whatever he does, he does it with a groundedness that his watchers can only envy.

Jesus walked a lot, and not only during the last week of his life. The four gospels are peppered with accounts of him walking into the countryside, walking by the Sea f Galilee, walking in the Temple, and even walking on water. If Jesus had driven a car instead, it is difficult to imagine how that might have changed his impact. Surely someone could have loaned him a fast horse. Instead, he walked everywhere he went, except for a short stint on a monkey at the end. This gave him time to see things, like the milky eyes of the beggar sitting by the side of the road, r round black eyes of sparrows sitting in their cages at the market. If he had been moving more quickly – even to reach more people – these things might have become a blur to him. Because he was moving slowly, they came into focus for him, just as he came into focus for them. Sometimes he had a destination and sometimes he did not. For many who followed him around, he was the destination. Whether he was going somewhere or nowhere at all, going with him was the point.

Done properly, the spiritual practice of going barefoot can take you halfway around the world and wake you up to your own place in the world all at the same time. It can lead you to love God with your whole self, and your neighbor as yourself, without leaving your backyard…Or keep your shoes on, if you wish. As long as you are on the earth and you know it, you are where you are supposed to be. You have everything you need to ground yourself in God.


[1] “An Altar in the World,” Barbara Brown Taylor, page 56, 58, 65-66, 68

15 Reasons I’ve Never Left (The) Church

In conversation with Rachel Held Evans’,”15 Reasons I Left Church” and “15 Reasons I Returned to The Church” 

As a 25 year old growing up in America today, I am part of a significant minority of people who have weathered high school, college, and young adulthood with consistent mainline denomination church attendance and membership. I’m not saying this as a point of pride, but rather out of a bit of surprise. Christ’s Church has been such a cornerstone to my life, that it’s hard to imagine my life without it, even for a short while.

Within the candidacy process (for ordination to ministry in the PCUSA) I was asked how I could know that God was calling me to minister in the church if I haven’t tried anything else yet. That question caught me off guard. But then I realized, I had tried other things. In high school I worked with the yearbook and newspaper and thought I might be a journalist because I like shedding light on stories people might not know otherwise. In college I studied film production because I like being enabling people to tell their stories and show what the world looks like from their point of view. The funny thing is God finds a way to use every bit of who we are towards ministry. I am a journalist through newsletters, bulletin announcements, directories, and websites. I am a film producer, sharing the stories of the church through film.

Through ministry, God enables me to be the best parts of myself.

So here are 15 (of many) reasons why I’ve never left The Church (or church):

1. A weekly corporate prayer of confession. There’s something beautifully vulnerable about standing in a room filled with people of all ages and life stages and confessing our brokenness to God and one another. Imagine going out to other places and relationships in your life and confessing this same brokenness. Imagine how the world could be changed if we all admitted our mistakes and the ways we create intentional distance in relationship.

2. A delightful 97 year old member of our church whose love for God and God’s church fuels every aspect of her life. Our weekly conversations about how the church can be strengthened show me that Church membership is not about showing up each week as if attending some performance. Membership is about being a part of things, actively engaging and participating in whatever capacity you are able.

3. 1 Corinthians 12: This passage reminds me how each of us has a role in doing God’s work here on earth.

4. Barbara Brown Taylor. Yes she is Episcopalian, and yes her faith journey has taken her back and forth from active participation in the Church, but the poetic honesty that she offers in every sermon and piece of writing have given me a resolute peace in God’s call on my life to be a minister.

5. Hearing the statements of faith of newly confirmed members. I first felt God calling me to ministry while I was in confirmation class in the 8th grade. Knowing the impact of confirmation first-hand, i delight in hearing where these new members are in their journey of faith.

6. Ecclesiastes 4:9-12This passage speaks in a direct way of the strength we have through unity.

7. Project Burning Bush. Sadly, this program has ended, but it’s 10 year existence gives me hope not only for the future of the church, but for its present reality. Throughout my time with PBB as both participant and staff, I met a great many wonderful people who genuinely delight in being the Church.

8. The community of Union Presbyterian Seminary. The faculty, staff, and students of this beautiful institution have taught me so much about what it means to be the Church. In agreement and in conflict, these people’s tangible passion for improvement strengthened who I am and what I am willing to fight for to allow God’s Kingdom to be manifest.

9. Matthew 18:20 Through our Church community and the relationships we share with one another, we invite God to be present among us. God shows up in the ways we care for one another.

10. Communion. In communion we are reminded of Jesus Christ’s great sacrifice for us, but also of the meal that he shared with His disciples in the Last Supper. We can be sure that this was one of many meals they shared, but this one was different. Before the meal Jesus knelt down in front of the disciples and washed their feet. In breaking the bread he introduced it as His body, speaking of how He could nourish them like no earthly bread could. He also spoke of how the wine as His blood gives life. He asked His disciples to specifically eat bread and drink wine as a way to remember Him.
When we join in communion we are making ourselves present to the events of this meal. I picture everyone in our congregation, sitting down with every other congregation, sitting down with Jesus and His disciples.

11. First Presbyterian Church of Muncie. I am grateful for my home church, First Presbyterian Church of Maumee and the ways they have all blessed me throughout my life, but First Presbyterian Church of Muncie holds a special place in my life. While FPC Maumee has had the opportunity to get to know me through relationships with my family and by watching me grow up throughout childhood, FPC Muncie knew me only while I was in college. Still, FPC Muncie welcomed me heartily, welcoming me into their choir loft and into their relationships like I had been there for years. I will never forget how much a part of the Church I felt when being a part of that church.

12. Deuteronomy 31:6. This passage tells us that God will always be with us. Even if I did leave a particular church, I know that God would always be present with me. However, this passage is not about striking out on your own to worship God alone as you may please. This passage comes in the context of Moses speaking to the people of Israel as they are about to head into the promise land. They travel as a large group and are strengthened through their faith in God as they have experienced God in community. They could not have made it to that point alone and God never intended them to. God will never ever leave us or forsake us, but that does not mean that we should intentionally create distance between ourselves and those who are eager to help us have a relationship with God.

13. Funerals. When someone dies I know I often find myself thinking about what will be said about me when I’m gone. I think about how long I will live and the experiences that I will have throughout my lifetime. If left to my own devices I think I would probably spend more time thinking about how I’ve been affected by someone’s death than the effect they have made with their life. Funerals work to bring us outside of that, focusing on the greater picture: the comfort of our common hymns, scripture telling us of God’s plans for us in heaven, and proclamations of the promise of resurrection.

14. Church meals. Child development experts can tell us the value of family dinner. Eating meals together fosters healthy habits and relationships. The same can be said of church dinners. When we eat together we approach each other on common ground. We all need to be fed physically, spiritually, and relationally. Meals with our church family allows for that to happen.

15. Baptisms. My favorite moment of the baptism is when the congregation affirms their role in the life of the person being baptized. In baptism, the person baptized becomes a part of the church family. We all take on the responsibilities of discipleship and Christian education. We promise to nurture this newly baptized person as they grow in faith. Simultaneously we are reminded of how we have all promised these vows to one another. Being the Church means saying: “I am here to travel this road with you. I will know God better through God’s work in your life and you will know God better through God’s work in mine.”

“The Practice of Paying Attention,” by Barbara Brown Taylor

“The Practice of Paying Attention,” by Barbara Brown Taylor[1]

According to the classical philosopher Paul Woodruff, reverence is the virtue that keeps people from trying to act like gods. ‘To forget that you are only human,’ he says, ‘to think you can act like a god – this is the opposite of reverence.’ While most of us live in a culture that reveres money, reveres power, reveres education and religion, Woodruff argues that true reverence cannot be for anything that human beings can make or manage by ourselves. By definition, he says, reverence is the recognition of something greater than the self – something that is beyond human creation or control, that transcends full human understanding.

A Native American elder I know says that he begins teaching people reverence by steering them over to the nearest tree. ‘Do you know that you didn’t make this tree?’ he asks them. If they say yes, then he knows that they are on their way. Reverence stands in awe of something – something that dwarfs the self, that allows human beings to sense the full extent of our limits – so that we can begin to see one another more reverently as well.

Reverence may take all kinds of forms, depending on what it is that awakens awe in you by reminding you of your true size…Nature is full of things bigger and more powerful than human beings…but size is not everything. Properly attended to, even a saltmarsh mosquito is capable of evoking reverence. See those white and black striped stockings on legs thinner than a needle? Where in those legs is there room for knees? And yet see how they bend, as the bug lowers herself to your flesh. Soon you and she will be blood kin. Your itch is the price of her life. Swat her if you must, but not without telling her she is beautiful first.

The easiest practice of reverence I know is simply to sit down somewhere outside, preferably near a body of water, and pay attention for at least twenty minutes. It is not necessary to take on the whole world at first. Just take the three square feet of earth on which you re sitting, paying close attention to everything that lives within that small estate…With any luck, you will soon begin to see the souls in pebbles, ants, small mounds of moss, and the acorn on its way to becoming an oak tree. You may feel some tenderness for the struggling mayfly the ants are carrying away. If you can see the water, you may take time to wonder where it comes from and where it is going. You may even feel the beating of your own heart, that miracle of ingenuity that does its work with no thought or instruction from you. You did not make your heart, any more than you made a tree. You are a guest here. You have been given a free pass to this modest domain and everything in it. If someone walks by or speaks to you, you may find that your power of attentiveness extends to this person as well.

Paying attention requires no equipment, no special clothes, no greens fees or personal trainers. You do not even have to be in particularly good shape. All you need is a body on this earth, willing to notice where it is, trusting that even something as small as a hazelnut can become an altar in this world.

[1] “An Altar in the World,” Barbara Brown Taylor, page 21-23, 34

As A Hen: Jesus and a Jack Russell

“How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings. ” Matthew 23:37b

Early Sunday morning I was awoken by a flash of light and then a loud deep crashing rumble. It was a thunderstorm. Not all too significant of an event in the grand scheme of things, and usually something that I might just hear and then fall right back to sleep. But to my Jack Russell, Gracie, this loud rumbling posed a very real threat. Our house was shaking, the sky was flashing, and for all Gracie knew, someone or something was trying to cause harm to her family. For the first few minutes she ran back and forth between the bedrooms, barking loudly, trying to scare off whatever it was that was threatening us. When the storm just wouldn’t stop she came back to my room and sat right on top of my feet, vigilant and on guard. There was nothing she could do about this loud booming and crashing, but it seems that she decided that whatever it was, it wasn’t getting to me without getting through her first.

It’s hard to explain the way God cares for us. When we are faced with the deep rumbles of injustice and sorrow we want our God to make things right. We want balance to be restored. We want the peace of the Kingdom of God to be realized on earth, right now, before any more hurt has a chance to happen. But that is not how God works.

My favorite preacher, Barbara Brown Taylor addresses this in “As A Hen Gathers Her Brood“:

If you have ever loved someone you could not protect, then you understand the depth of Jesus’ lament. All you can do is open your arms. You cannot make anyone walk into them. Meanwhile, this is the most vulnerable posture in the world –wings spread, breast exposed — but if you mean what you say, then this is how you stand.

Given the number of animals available, it is curious that Jesus chooses a hen. Where is the biblical precedent for that? What about the mighty eagle of Exodus, or Hosea’s stealthy leopard? What about the proud lion of Judah, mowing down his enemies with a roar? Compared to any of those, a mother hen does not inspire much confidence. No wonder some of the chicks decided to go with the fox.

But a hen is what Jesus chooses, which — if you think about it –is pretty typical of him. He is always turning things upside down, so that children and peasants wind up on top while kings and scholars land on the bottom. He is always wrecking our expectations of how things should turn out by giving prizes to losers and paying the last first. So of course he chooses a chicken, which is about as far from a fox as you can get. That way the options become very clear: you can live by licking your chops or you can die protecting the chicks.

Jesus won’t be king of the jungle in this or any other story. What he will be is a mother hen, who stands between the chicks and those who mean to do them harm. She has no fangs, no claws, no rippling muscles. All she has is her willingness to shield her babies with her own body. If the fox wants them, he will have to kill her first.

Which he does, as it turns out. He slides up on her one night in the yard while all the babies are asleep. When her cry wakens them, they scatter. She dies the next day where both foxes and chickens can see her — wings spread, breast exposed — without a single chick beneath her feathers. It breaks her heart, but it does not change a thing. If you mean what you say, then this is how you stand.

How do you stand when faced with injustice? Are you willing to become a mother hen for the sake of those who need protecting?